ON OCTOBER 10--the day before the Norwegian contingent of the Nobel Prize committee gave the prize for peace to Jimmy Carter--the Swedish side of the Nobel committee named Hungary's Imre Kertész the winner of the prize for literature.
How obscure is Kertész? The Contemporary Authors Index, which reports on over ten thousand of the world's best-known living writers, doesn't list him. Only two of his books are available in English: a Holocaust novella called "Fateless" and the novel "Kaddish for a Child Not Born." "Fateless" is an affecting but not towering work, and unless the translators have utterly failed, "Kaddish for a Child Not Born" is an embarrassing, pretentious mess. These are reputed to be his major works, and only one is even worth picking up.
It used to be a favorite party game of American authors to complain about the Nobel Prize committee's selection of John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck over Robert Frost and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at least Buck and Steinbeck were skilled, professional storytellers. Some of the selections in more recent years have been not much more deserving than in-flight travel-magazine writers. The Kertész choice is far from the worst. In 1985 the committee picked the instantly forgettable French author Claude Simon. In 1997 the prize went to Italian playwright Dario Fo, largely because he had been denied entry into the United States. (Meanwhile, just among English-language playwrights, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard are still alive.)
The 1995 winner Seamus Heaney himself has said the committee waited too long to give the prize to an Irish poet, and so missed Patrick Kavanaugh. By the time the Swedes realized the golden age of poetry that was happening in Poland, Zbigniew Herbert was dead, and the 1980 winner Czeslaw Milosz received the prize almost by default.
Not that Heaney and Milosz were entirely unworthy--particularly when compared with some of the Scandinavian authors for whom the Swedish selectors have always shown a preference. (When was the last time you even saw a text by the 1974 winners Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson?) But the Nobel committee has a knack for picking a nation's second-rank talent. They repeatedly passed over the controversial Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima and then gave the award in 1994 to Kenzaburo Oe--just as they had earlier passed over the vastly deserving Junichiro Tanazaki to favor Yasuniri Kawabata.
Last year's selection of V.S. Naipaul was a genuinely great choice. But among English writers the literature committee members neglected Graham Greene and Anthony Powell to select William Golding in 1983. Ten years later they ignored Ralph Ellison to bestow the award on Toni Morrison. In 1986 they selected Wole Soyinka (the author once cruelly described by Andrew Ferguson as "perhaps the greatest belletrist in all of Nigeria"), leaving out the country's one important writer: Chinua Achebe.
THE NOBEL PRIZE committee's habit of intermingling wise choices with gross errors forms a pattern that goes back to its beginning in 1901. In the early years, it rejected the towering survivors of the Victorian era to honor such forgotten figures as Giosuè Carducci and Rudolf Eucken. Two reasons are usually given for these goofs: The committee reads most work in translation, and its judgments are strongly influenced by current politics and literary tastes.
But perhaps there is more to it. If Kipling is taken primarily as a poet and short-story writer, then in the award's first fourteen years the Nobel Prize went to only one novelist--and a historical one at that: Henryk Sienkiewicz. By contrast, more than half of those picked in the last twenty years have been novelists. When the award was first being given most intellectuals thought the reading of a cultured person consisted of poetry, history, and philosophy much more than novels--a species of writing that, with few exceptions, was thought to be a vulgar middle-class form of entertainment.
The first prize was given to Provençal poet and philologist Sully Prudhomme (though it was meant to go to Tolstoy, who lost by accident). The second went to historian Theodor Mommsen, and the third to poet Bjornstjerne Bjornson. Ironically, these awards were being given at a time of great ferment in novel-writing and relative atrophy in poetry and history: Tennyson and Hugo were dead, but in the first years of the twentieth century Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, and Emile Zola were all alive.
THE HONORING OF NOVELISTS above historians, philosophers, and poets was only gradual. Bertrand Russell won in 1950, Winston Churchill in 1953, and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. And the shift to novelists was perhaps justified when the novel was consistently attracting the best writing talent. But how many first-rate novelists are now working? Philip Roth and John Updike are still alive, and may deserve recognition. But among younger Americans, Don DeLillo and Joyce Carol Oates are the most touted. Undeniably they have talent, but does either possess greatness? Britain has William Trevor and the comic novelist Tom Sharpe. But does it have many living novelists possessing anything approximating historical importance?
In contrast, consider some of the superlative historians, men of letters, economists, and synthetic writers of ideas at work. Think only of Jacques Barzun, Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest, Simon Schama, James McPherson, and John Keegan. And, meantime, Robert Caro, Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, and Jean Edward Smith seem to have made biography into a major--perhaps the major--literary form of our age. What recent British novels were as worth reading as many of these authors' popular histories? How many Americans have composed a novel of the substance of some of these authors' treatises? How many create as full and memorable characters as these biographers have done?
THE NOBEL PRIZE COMMITTEE is wrong in thinking that it must avoid picking too many writers from the world's major countries. But that it looks to minor and unknown Hungarians to find talent in novel-writing may not be just a reflection of its desire to honor writers working in smaller nations.
In the preceding generation, there has been a marked improvement in both the quality and in the standards of the writing of history and biography. But either the novel is now worn-out soil, or we're in the midst of a sustained dry season. The Nobel committee might wish to take note.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright living in New York City.